North Saskatchewan River

The North Saskatchewan River is a glacier-fed river that flows from the Canadian Rockies continental divide east to central Saskatchewan, where it joins with another major river to make up the Saskatchewan River. Its water flows eventually into the Hudson Bay.

North Saskatchewan River
Headwaters of the North Saskatchewan in Banff National Park
The North Saskatchewan River drainage basin
ProvincesAlberta, Saskatchewan
CitiesEdmonton, AB, North Battleford, SK, Prince Albert, SK
Physical characteristics
SourceRocky Mountains
  locationSaskatchewan Glacier, Alberta
  coordinates52°09′22″N 117°10′54″W
  elevation2,080 m (6,820 ft)
MouthSaskatchewan River
Saskatchewan River Forks, Saskatchewan
53°14′07″N 105°04′58″W
380 m (1,250 ft)
Length1,287 km (800 mi)
Basin size122,800 km2 (47,400 sq mi)
  locationPrince Albert, Saskatchewan, 53 km (33 mi) from the mouth
  average238 m3/s (8,400 cu ft/s)
  minimum19 m3/s (670 cu ft/s)
  maximum5,660 m3/s (200,000 cu ft/s)
Basin features
  leftBrazeau River
  rightClearwater River, Vermilion River, Battle River

The Saskatchewan River system is the largest shared between the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan.[1] Its watershed includes most of southern and central Alberta and Saskatchewan.


The North Saskatchewan River has a length of 1,287 kilometres (800 mi), and a drainage area of 122,800 square kilometres (47,400 sq mi).[2] At its end point at Saskatchewan River Forks it has a mean discharge of 245 cubic metres per second (8,700 cu ft/s). The yearly discharge at the Alberta–Saskatchewan border is more than 7 cubic kilometres (1.7 cu mi).[3]

The river begins above 1,800 metres (5,900 ft) at the toe of the Saskatchewan Glacier in the Columbia Icefield, and flows southeast through Banff National Park alongside the Icefields Parkway. At the junction of the David Thompson Highway (Highway 11), it initially turns northeast for 10 kilometres (6.2 mi) before switching to a more direct eastern flow for about 30 kilometres (19 mi). At this point, it turns north where it eventually arrives at Abraham Lake. Bighorn Dam constricts the north end of Abraham Lake, where the North Saskatchewan emerges to track eastward to Rocky Mountain House. At Rocky Mountain House, the river abruptly turns north again for 100 kilometres (62 mi) where it switches east towards Edmonton, Alberta. In Edmonton, the river passes through the centre of the city in a northeasterly direction and out towards Smoky Lake at which point it quickly changes to the southeast and then more to the east as it makes its way to the Alberta–Saskatchewan boundary.

From the border, the river flows southeast between North Battleford and Battleford and on in the direction of Saskatoon. About 40 kilometres (25 mi) northwest of Saskatoon, near Langham, the river veers to the northeast where it passes through the City of Prince Albert. About 30 kilometres (19 mi) downstream of Prince Albert, the North Saskatchewan River joins the South Saskatchewan River at Saskatchewan River Forks to become the Saskatchewan River. From there, the river flows east to Tobin Lake and into Manitoba, eventually emptying into Lake Winnipeg.


The river course can be divided into five distinct sections. The first, the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains, is the smallest area geographically, although the largest in terms of run-off and contributed water flow. The glaciers and perpetual snows of the mountain peaks feed the river year-round. Mountains, with little vegetation, experience fast-melting snow cover. The second section of the river comprises the foothills region. The terrain is hilly and rough, with a deeper and more defined valley. This area is well covered with forest and muskeg, and run-off into the river is much more constant and stable than in the mountains.

From Edmonton to the mouth of the Vermilion River, the North Saskatchewan flows through the plains-parkland divide, with occasional stretches of prairie. The North Saskatchewan River valley parks system; the largest expanses of urban parkland in Canada.[4] Cutting across Edmonton and the Capital Region.[5] The river runs in a well-defined valley with deep cuts in the landscape.The fourth section, from the Vermilion River to Prince Albert is principally prairie with a few small stretches of timber and secondary forest cover. The valley of the river is much wider, and the river itself spreads out across shallow water and flows over many shifting sand bars. Low-lying, flat areas border the river for much of this section.

The final section of the river, from Prince Albert to the Saskatchewan River Forks, has many rapids. The valley is more shallow than the previous sections of the river, and the channel is much better defined. There is little prairie and much tree cover in this section.[6]


The Bridge River Ash is in the vicinity of the North Saskatchewan River, which erupted from the Mount Meager massif in southwestern British Columbia about 2350 years ago.


The river is shown on a Hudson's Bay Company map from 1760, labeled as the Beaver River.[7]

Its Cree name is kisiskâciwanisîpiy (swift current). From this name is derived the name Saskatchewan, used as well for the South Saskatchewan River and the Saskatchewan River (to which the North Saskatchewan is a major tributary), and the province of that name.

Its Blackfoot name is omaka-ty (big river). [8]

The section of the North Saskatchewan river that falls within the Banff National Park boundaries has been designated a Canadian Heritage River in 1989, for its importance in the development of western Canada.[9]

The river demarcates the prairie–parkland divide for much of its course and acted as a natural boundary between plains Blackfoot and woodland Cree First Nations people for thousands of years. With the westward expansion of the fur trade spearheaded by the North West Company and followed by the Hudson's Bay Company, the river became an important transportation route for fur trade brigades' York boats, to which it was especially well suited as it follows an eastern trend toward Hudsons Bay, the entry point for the HBC into Canada. Many fur trade posts were constructed on the river, including Fort Edmonton (1795) and Rocky Mountain House, the uppermost post reached by canoe navigation. The river's importance continued after the amalgamation of the Hudson's Bay Company and the North West Company. The river was plied by a number of steamboats right up to WWI, although for everyday freight the growing web of railway lines in the western prairies eventually replaced them. The river was used commercially for many years - to carry flatboats of settlers goods and construction materials downstream from Edmonton, to float thousands of logs in the annual log drive downstream to Edmonton prior to WWI, as a source of ice blocks for home owners' iceboxes.

The first bridge across the river opened in 1900, the Low Level Bridge (Edmonton). The Canadian Northern Railway Bridge (Prince Albert) (1907-9), which also at first carried foot and wheeled traffic, and the Battleford bridge (ca. 1908) followed.


Edmonton's North Saskatchewan River valley parks system is the largest system of urban parks in North America, and covers both sides of the river valley's course through Edmonton.

Fish species

Fish species include: walleye, sauger, yellow perch, northern pike, goldeye, mooneye, lake sturgeon, mountain whitefish, burbot, longnose sucker, white sucker and shorthead redhorse.[10] The upper North Saskatchewan River contains cutthroat trout (although not native),[11] and bull trout[12]


Like all rivers, the North Saskatchewan is subject to periodic flooding, beginning with rapid snowmelt in the mountains or prolonged periods of rain in the river basin. With the establishment of permanent communities along the river's course, and the rise of an administrative/government structure, records exist recording floods in the North Saskatchewan for the past century. The Bighorn Dam, constructed in the early 1970s near Nordegg, Alberta, and the Brazeau Dam, constructed in the mid-1960s, have not reduced flooding potential on the North Saskatchewan River (Alberta Environment 1981) [13]

List of notable flood years [14] [15]

Year Edmonton Prince Albert
Peak date mean daily flow
Peak date Peak flow
1899 18 August4570August3960
1912 10 July210014 July1980
19 August199025 August1550
1914 9 June175014 June1790
1915 29 June46402 July5300
16 July255021 July2320
1917 18 May186023 May1540
1923 25 June238030 June1640
1925 18 August215023 August1620
1932 4 June187010 June2160
1944 16 June345020 June2940
1948 25 May185031 May2090
1952 25 June354029 June2970
1954 8 June303012 June2790
27 August28201 Sept2570
1965 29 June25904 July2460
1969 7 July174013 July1570
1972 27 June29702 July2340
1974 23 April3880
1980 7 June174013 June1680
1982 6 July192013 July1580
1986 19 July399024 July3230
1990 4 July234010 July1890
2005 21 June227027 June1800
2011 19 June180026 June2100
2013 23 June271029 June2200

The flood of 1899

The river peaked at a stage of 12.61 metres (41.4 ft) with an estimated peak instantaneous discharge of 5,100 cubic metres per second (180,000 cu ft/s).

North Saskatchewan River flood of 1915

The 1915 flood of the North Saskatchewan River was one of the most dramatic in the history of Edmonton. On 28 June, the Edmonton Bulletin reported the river had risen "10 feet in as many hours." A frantic phone call from Rocky Mountain House alerted local authorities to the flood's arrival.[16] The Canadian Northern Railway had parked a number of train cars on the city's Low Level Bridge to protect against the "tons upon tons of debris" that had been pushed up against its piers, including a house swept away by the current.[17] Thousands of Edmonton residents watched the flood destroy lumber mills along the city's river valley.[17]

The river peaked at a stage of 13.73 metres (45.0 ft), a rise of 11.5 metres (38 ft) above low flow, with an estimated peak instantaneous discharge of 5,800 cubic metres per second (200,000 cu ft/s). However, based on high water marks and 1D modelling, the actual value may have been closer to 6,300 cubic metres per second (220,000 cu ft/s).

The flood of 1986

The river peaked at a stage of 11.5 metres (38 ft) with a peak instantaneous discharge of 4,520 cubic metres per second (160,000 cu ft/s).

2013 Alberta Flooding

Along with many other rivers in central and southern Alberta during late June, the North Saskatchewan saw significantly higher water levels and flow rates. The river peaked at a stage of 9.03 m (29.6 ft) with a peak instantaneous discharge of 2,710 cubic metres per second (96,000 cu ft/s) on June 23rd in Edmonton. [18] This is signicantly higher than the Bow River's peak height at 4.1 metres (13 ft) and peak discharge of 1,750 cubic metres per second (62,000 cu ft/s) on June 21st, that caused widespread flooding in Calgary.[19] However, due to the expansive North Saskatchewan River Valley and natural sanctuary/parkland that surrounds it, the City of Edmonton had only minor, isolated flooding, with virtually no major property damage as a result.

Commercial navigation

The North Saskatchewan River has always been a major trade route from Hudson Bay and central Canada across the Canadian Prairies to the Canadian Rockies. During the fur trade era, birch bark canoes and York boats travelled up and down the Saskatchewan delivering trade goods and amassing furs for transportation to Europe.

The North Saskatchewan also witnessed a lively, although short-lived, era of steamboat shipping during the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s. The Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) purchased a number of steamboats from companies operating on the Red River and trading at Winnipeg/Fort Garry. The HBC desired to avoid paying the labour costs of fur trade brigades, and hoped steamboat shipping would provide a suitable alternative. Several HBC steamboats navigated the river intermittently for many years, although fluctuating water levels and natural barriers (rapids and sandbars) hampered efficient operation. [20]

With the arrival of the railroad in Western Canada, steamboat shipping on the North Saskatchewan tapered off, but steamboats operated in the Edmonton area until the economic crash of 1912-14.[21]

Dams and hydroelectric development

A number of dams have been planned and constructed on the North Saskatchewan River and its tributaries. No singular purpose has dominated dam planning in the basin, indeed, hydroelectric development, flood control, and water diversion schemes have all underpinned proposals to construct dams on the river.

Planned dams

The first hydroelectric development on the North Saskatchewan was planned in 1910 near the Town of Drayton Valley. Funding for the plan came from a British syndicate; design and construction were to be carried out by the Edmonton Hydro-Electric Power Scheme. The development was shelved after the outbreak of World War I.[22]

The La Colle Falls hydroelectric project east of Prince Albert was a half-built failure. Construction began in the 1910s and was later abandoned.[23] The city remained in debt from financing the project until 1960, and the site still attracts tourists today.[24]

During the 1960s and 1970s, a major dam was planned on the North Saskatchewan near the Hamlet of Hairy Hill, Alberta, about 160 kilometres (100 mi) downstream from Edmonton. This dam was part of a larger interbasin water diversion conceived by the Alberta Government to transfer water from the Peace, Smoky, and Athabasca rivers to the Saskatchewan River Basin.[25]

The planned dam had a maximum height of 65 metres (212 ft), with a crest length of 1.76 kilometres (5,760 ft), which would have created a reservoir capable of holding over 4.9 cubic kilometres (4,000,000 acre⋅ft) of water. The reservoir would have affected municipal water works in the City of Fort Saskatchewan, was likely to inundate part of the Saddle Lake Indian Reserve, and would have flooded a number of oil and natural gas fields in the area.[26] The plan was later shelved in light of economic and environmental concerns.

Constructed dams

The Bighorn Dam was constructed near Nordegg and created Abraham Lake, one of the largest reservoirs in Alberta. The dam was constructed in 1971 by TransAlta.[27] The Bighorn Plant has a generating capacity of 120 megawatts (MW), and has an available water supply that allows it to be the largest producer of hydroelectric electricity in Alberta, with an average of 408,000 megawatt hours (MW.h) each year.[27]

One of the North Saskatchewan's major tributaries, the Brazeau River, houses the Brazeau Hydroelectric Plant. At 355 MW, the Brazeau Dam is Alberta's largest hydroelectric facility, and was built in 1965 by TransAlta.[28] Though having a higher peak generating capacity than the Bighorn Dam, the hydrology of the Brazeau means that its average annual electricity production is a slightly smaller 397,000 MW.h.[28]



See also

Further reading

  • Kostash, Myrna (2005). Reading the River: A Traveller's Companion to the North Saskatchewan River. Coteau Books. ISBN 978-1-5505-0317-3. Retrieved 2016-04-30.


  1. "Saskatchewan River". Encyclopædia Britannica. 2006. Retrieved September 22, 2006.
  2. Atlas of Canada. "Major Rivers in Canada". Archived from the original on April 4, 2007. Retrieved 2007-05-01.
  3. Alberta Environment - Alberta river basins
  4. "River Valley Parks". City of Edmonton. City of Edmonton. Retrieved 31 March 2016.
  5. "Ribbon of Green Concept Plan: Basic Principles". City of Edmonton. City of Edmonton. Archived from the original on 26 March 2016. Retrieved 31 March 2016.
  6. Surveys of the North Saskatchewan River: 1910-1915. Edmonton: Government of the Province of Alberta, Department of Water Resources, 1917. Pages 50-53.
  7. MacDonald, 3
  8. Geographic Board of Canada. Place Names of Alberta (1928)
  9. "North Saskatchewan River". Canadian Heritage River System. 2011. Retrieved 2015-07-09.
  10. "Fish Species of Saskatchewan". Government of Saskatchewan. Archived from the original on 2015-11-03.
  11. "Cutthroat trout". Retrieved 2019-08-30.
  12. "Upper North Saskatchewan River and Abraham Lake Bull Trout Study" (PDF). Alberta Conservation. Archived from the original (PDF) on July 28, 2019.
  13. Mustapha, A. M. (1981). History of Floods in the North Saskatchewan River Basin (Report). Alberta Environment, Environmental Engineering Support Services, Technical Services Division.
  14. Research Council of Alberta, Highways Division. Hydrologic Data on Floods in the North Saskatchewan River. (Edmonton: Research Council of Alberta, 1965).
  15. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2007-12-31. Retrieved 2008-01-02.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link) Environment Canada, Water Survey of Canada, retrieved 11 January 2009.
  16. The Edmonton Bulletin, 28 June 1915.
  17. The Edmonton Bulletin, 29 June 1915.
  18. "Disclaimer for Hydrometric Information - Water Level and Flow - Environment Canada".
  19. "Disclaimer for Hydrometric Information - Water Level and Flow - Environment Canada".
  20. Bruce Peel, Steamboats on the Saskatchewan, (Saskatoon: Prairie Books, 1972)
  21. Tom Monto, Old Strathcona - Edmonton's Southside Roots (Alhambra Books/Crang Publishing (2011).
  22. Loosmore, W. S. B. To Trail's End: Early Settlement in Drayton Valley. Drayton Valley: Drayton Valley and District Historical Society, 1994. Pages 10-14.
  23. Saskatchewan Settlement Experience. Retrieved on 2013-07-12.
  24. Saskatchewan Settlement Experience. Retrieved on 2013-07-12.
  25. Athabasca River Historical Report. Retrieved on 2018-03-01.
  26. Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration, Engineering Services, Alberta Regional Division. Hariy Hill Dam—North Saskatchewan River, Engineering Report. Calgary: Saskatchewan-Nelson Basin Board, 1970.
  27. "Bighorn". Retrieved 2017-12-26.
  28. "Brazeau". Retrieved 2017-12-26.
  29. Milholland, Billie. North Saskatchewan River Guide: Mountain to Prairie a Living Landscape. Edmonton: North Saskatchewan Watershed Alliance, 2002.
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